The Westgate Maypole

2019   Back

The Westgate maypole spends most of the year in the Hanwells’ garage. Though technically the garage belongs to both of them, Janet rarely sets foot in it – it’s Robert’s domain. Every summer Robert rearranges the contents of the garage to access his garden tools, and then again at Christmas to get to the box of decorations. So, by spring, the maypole is buried deep under lawnmower parts and old chairs and artificial christmas trees and old jam jars filled with batteries and screws.

But every object has its time. Towards the end of April, Janet is allowed into the garage to rummage and make a mess and drag out the old maypole box. It’s all still there, just as it was last year: the three metal poles and the eight coloured ribbons, wrapped around each other for safekeeping. There are two red, two blue, two green and two yellow, and they each have a large hook at one end for connecting to the top of the pole. These ribbons are fairly new: Janet bought them three years ago, to replace the old ones that were starting to fray.

Early in the morning of the first of May, Janet places the maypole box (along with the bells and sashes for the little dancers) in the back of the Ford Fiesta, and drives the half-mile to Westgate Green. Already the green is busy. Local vendors have set up stalls around the edges, and the scout group is assembling its tea and cake stand. Badges will be earned. The central gazebo will house the musical acts - this year the Westgate Banjo Ensemble, a barbershop quartet called the Four Tenners, a youth choir from St. Just’s, and the Morris dancers as usual. Everyone waves and shouts ‘Good morning Mrs Hanwell!’ to Janet as she arrives, stumbling across the grass with the box in her hands and her car keys in her mouth. She finally sets it down in the middle of the green, just in front of the gazebo. There, she kneels down and runs her hands through the grass, searching. The last twelve months have seen heavy rains and summer drought, shifting the soil, but she doesn’t have to scratch for long before she finds it. Many years’ practice: a little metal tube set into the ground, almost lost under the grass, but still there.

Now Janet unpacks the maypole from its box, and starts unravelling the ribbons. She attaches them to the rungs in the top section of pole, which resembles a crown. The colours are spaced evenly: red, blue, green, yellow, red, blue, green, yellow. When that is done she slots the three metal pieces together, and with some difficulty lifts the eight-foot pole into its hole in the ground. Now it is the centre of the fair. The day is warming, with a gentle breeze that makes the ribbons flutter: perfect Mayday weather. Janet ties the ribbons together to stop them from flying up, and wanders off to greet the children, who are just arriving.

For a few hours the maypole waits patiently for the fair to get underway. The people of Westgate descend on the green and mill about between the stalls, paying it little attention. The barbershop quartet finish their set of golden oldies and the crowd swells; the maypole’s time has come. Here is Janet with her four boys and four girls, dressed in white shirts with bells around their ankles, and red and black sashes. Peter Belfry, who some say is the oldest man in Westgate, stands by with his accordion. He wears a large black hat like a pirate’s.

The crowd forms a ring around the maypole as the children walk in, fidgeting in their costumes. Janet, whispering and gesturing from the sidelines, directs them into place. Then Peter Belfry begins, and the children dance clockwise around the pole. The accordion playing is messy - the tune half-remembered and half-forgotten - but the passion is not lost.

The song ends abruptly and the children stop, dizzy, and walk to the maypole to pick out a ribbon. Red, blue, green, yellow. They look to Janet, who looks to Peter: he nods.

The music is merrier than before and the children skip round and round. At the top of the maypole, the spinning ribbons are forming a multicoloured spiral, moving downwards, drawing the children closer.

Gradually, Peter slows down, and Janet holds up her hands to make the children stop. The people of Westgate hold their breath. A baby cries in the distance. The smash of a glass from the Rose and Crown. Janet gives the signal, and the children turn around. With a great ‘Ho!’ Peter starts up, louder and livelier than before. In response the children dance counterclockwise, unwrapping their ribbons, undoing the spiral.

Janet guides them through increasingly complicated dances. First, they form two circles of dancers, creating two wraps of ribbons moving at different speeds: one red and blue, the other green and yellow. The people of Westgate clap in time with Peter’s accordion. Then the children reverse and undo that too, and begin another dance, skipping in and out of each other’s ribbons, sometimes stumbling but always getting back up, until the maypole is wrapped in a multicoloured lattice. Red, blue, green, yellow. This too is undone, and the children, dizzy and tired, go off to rest and drink juice before their next performance. Janet is left with the pole again as the ring of the audience disintegrates. She ties the ribbons to the pole to stop them being stepped on.

The Mayday dance is repeated twice more throughout the day, to gradually shrinking and crowds who are no less enthusiastic. After their final performance, the children, tired and overstimulated, hand back their bells and sashes to Janet. She thanks them for their good work and gives them each a lollipop.

Shadows lengthen on the green. The scouts have sold all their brownies; Mayday is almost over. The children of the town have gone home and the remaining adults crowd around the Rose and Crown. Peter Belfry rewards himself with an ale. But two men, pints still in their hands,stumble away from the pub towards the maypole, and start unpicking the multicoloured latticework of the ribbons. Janet shoos them away before they can do any damage. From then on she stands guard.

It doesn’t take long for the Mayday fair to be packed up. A procession of vans crawls along the green, one after the other filled up with unsold goods and roller banners and disassembled awnings.

Janet starts to pull the maypole from its hole, but feels a hand on her shoulder. Robert is here, and he takes over. He's still in his Morris dancing costume, but has taken the bells off. With his straw hat under one arm, he makes quick work of the maypole, breaking it into three pieces and uncllipping the ribbons. Janet folds them carefully around each other. They both agree it has been a successful Mayday.

Robert carries both boxes to the car, and drives them the half-mile home. Janet, weary, goes into the house and puts the kettle on. She hears the garage door slide open, and Robert shuffle through. He places the box with the maypole and ribbons in the back left corner of the garage, at the top of the pile, for now.


Will Dalton is an artist and writer based in London. He uses the materials of everyday life to explore how our personal experiences are shaped by the objects, places and spaces around us.